While doing some research on a certain Russian immigrant for the nonfiction book I’m working on, I came across this myth. It surprised me, as I had never questioned this “fact.”
We all know the story: millions of immigrants passed through immigration on Ellis Island from 1892 to 1954 at an average of 500 people a day, and as they came, inspectors often shortened their last names to something easier to spell, something more “American” sounding. So Waclawek became Walters, Markovitch became Marks, or Schwarz could be translated literally and become Black.
According to the National Park Service, this is a myth. In actual fact, the inspectors on Ellis Island worked from ships’ manifests, where passengers’ names were already listed along with details about their occupation, age, country of origin, marital status, and so forth. These were created in their home port, not in the U.S.
According to Smithsonian historians, “If anything, Ellis Island officials were known to correct mistakes in passenger lists,” says Philip Sutton, a librarian in the Milstein Division of United States History, Local History and Genealogy, at the New York Public Library, in a blog post delving into the name change mythology. More commonly, immigrants themselves would change their names, either to sound more American, or to melt into the immigrant community, where they were going to live, says Sutton. If name changes happened with any frequency on Ellis Island, it was not noted in any contemporaneous newspaper accounts or in recollections from inspectors, Sutton says.
It is also unlikely a foreign name would flummox an Ellis Island inspector. From 1892 to 1924, “one-third of all immigrant inspectors were themselves foreign-born, and all immigrant inspectors spoke an average of three languages,” says the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services.
So was your last name one of those that was Americanized?